Residents of towns around Prince William Sound are digging out of snowfall that drifted more than 8 feet in places and shut down the only highway in or out of Valdez, a community of about 4,000 that is not infrequently the snowiest city in the U.S.
The National Weather Service said Valdez received a record 19.2 inches of snow on Thursday, which leaves the coastal town with 252 inches (about 21 feet) so far this winter. Forecasters said Valdez residents should expect a total of some 3 feet by the time the current snowstorm ends, with limited visibility hampering drivers and pedestrians.
Of course, Valdez is used to snow. It averages about 320 inches each winter and there's lots of winter remaining. The town's record snowfall came in the winter of 1989-90, with 561 inches, or about 46 feet of snow. Amazingly, it all melted by June.
"We're calling it 'Snowpocalypse,' " said J.R. Lewis, owner of KLAM and KCDV radio stations in Cordova told the Anchorage Daily News. "We have a drift that's gotta be 8 or 9 feet high at the station and our transmitter shack is almost completely buried"
On Friday morning, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation, numerous avalanches closed a lengthy stretch of the Richardson Highway -- the only highway in or out of Valdez.
According to Meadow Bailey, spokeswoman for the DOT, crews were already stationed in Valdez and working to clear off the road. Additionally, crews were trying to trigger additional potential avalanches as a preemptive measure.
"Avalanche technicians are shooting snowpack, trying to make those avalanches happen before we clear the road out," she said. She said that crews along the highway were making predictions for further snowfall.
"Right now, we have crews anticipating 40 feet of snow through Thompson Pass by the end of the weekend, on track to beat the record," Bailey said.
40 feet equates to 480 inches, which means the pass would still have a way to go to beat the record snowfall of 1953, when 974.1 inches of snow fell. But the snowfall is measured between August of 2011 through July of 2012, so there is time and plenty of snow yet to come.
Kate Herring, Valdez Communications Director for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, said that oil services were up and running in Valdez.
"We're doing well," Herring said in an email written from her home because the roads were too snowpacked to go to the office. "We've got a large team out specifically working on snow removal, but when we get so much, basically everyone lends a hand. So far, so good!"
"The folks at Alyeska are still safely moving oil... and a heck of a lot of snow. The sun is out now, but it's supposed to snow another 10 inches tomorrow," Herring said Friday afternoon.
Digging out in Cordova
Nearby, in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova, which declared a state of emergency, the Copper River Highway, which connects Cordova to its airport, was limited to one lane on Friday, according to the Cordova Times. Avalanche experts there were assessing the situation and warning that avalanche danger was still high. The city had declared a local emergency as of 1 p.m. Friday.
"Cordova Fire Department asks residents to be extremely fire safe," the Times reported. "Check wood stoves regularly, use space heaters with extreme caution. When shoveling, take small loads, rest frequently and keep hydrated. Shoveling is very stressful on the heart. Be a good neighbor. Check on neighbors to ensure they have enough food and water."
The Times also advised on its Facebook page that residents check their stove pipe exhausts to prevent the buildup of carbon monoxide indoors.
By Friday afternoon, Bailey said the DOT was sending in five heavy-equipment operators to help clear out the snow-drenched city. Bailey reported that the airport, which had been closed to ease snow removal, reopened in the afternoon.
A situation report forwarded by Bailey said that the roofs of two commercial buildings and one residential home had collapsed, with damages estimated between $2-3 million. A photo of the collapsed roof of the Copper River Seafoods warehouse building was posted to Facebook Friday afternoon.
Closer to Anchorage, as of Friday morning, Alyeska Ski Resort was reporting 9 inches of new snow in the last 24 hours at the top of Chair 6, with 8 inches at the base of the mountain. That translates into plenty of fresh powder for skiers and boarders.
While the situation near the Prince William Sound was dire, skiers, snowboarders and snowmachiners in other parts of Southcentral Alaska didn't mind the fresh powder. Kevin Wright of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center pegged the danger in Turnagain Pass as moderate Friday morning.
"We got a healthy refresh of new snow yesterday with up to one foot of snow in some areas," he wrote on the center's daily avalanche report. "I expect generally low hazard below treeline and in sheltered areas. Above treeline, loose snow avalanches are possible."
The Valdez snowfall harks back to the winter of 2009, when a weeklong snowstorm dumped more than five feet of snow on the city, enough new snow to sink a boat sitting in the Valdez harbor.